Singapore—Around five percent of all Covid-19 cases will be so severe that patients will be needing mechanical ventilators in order to breathe. While that percentage may seem small, given the large, and rising, number of novel coronavirus patients today, it’s no wonder that country after country has reported a shortage of these breathing machines.
What a ventilator does for you is essentially to do the work of breathing, while your body is fighting off the coronavirus infection. Experts have called the ventilator “the device that becomes the decider between life and death,” which makes their shortage all the more alarming.
In countries such as Italy, a shortage of ventilators has forced doctors to face the impossible decision of whom to put on the machine, with other countries such as Spain following suit. Even the United Kingdom, which is only beginning to see its rise in Covid-19 cases, is reporting that ‘ventilator rationing’ is now being practised.
In the United States, President Donald Trump took auto manufacturer General Motors to task for the company’s efforts to make ventilators, accusing GM of “wasting time” in making the machines.
Ventilators are expensive, running between $25,000 to $50,000 for hospital-grade models, (S$35,000-S$71,000). Even without the coronavirus pandemic, developing countries already had an alarming shortage of ventilators.
Moreover, each Covid-19 patient needing a ventilator usually stays on it between 15 to 20 days.
Due to the shortage of these machines, doctors have had to assess the short-and-long term survival rates of each patient in order to choose which patient a ventilator would be given.
Even back in the 2000s, the US Center for Disease Control assessed that in the case of an influenza pandemic, there would be a shortage of between 40,000 to 70,000 ventilators worldwide.
At the moment, companies around the world are scrambling to build ventilators quickly, including Virgin Orbit, a firm backed by billionaire Richard Branson which usually manufactures rockets.
Virgin Orbit, however, is building a simple version of the machine. “This one is going to basically be for all the patients who need a ventilator but do not need a top-line ventilator. That will free up all these top-line ventilators for the sickest of the sick,” said Dr. Govind Rajan, the director of clinical affairs at the UC Irvine Medical Center.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is also producing a simple ventilator. What’s more, they will publish its design as well, encouraging local teams to develop ventilators using available materials.
Dyson, in the UK, is also building 15,000 ventilators, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is now positive for Covid-19, telephoned the company’s owner, James Dyson. Four thousand units will be donated to other countries.
Back in the US, General Motors is set to produce 10,000 ventilators a month, and fellow automobile manufacturer Ford says it will have made 1,500 by the end of next month.
However, officials wonder if this will even be enough. In New York, one of the hardest-hit states in the US, health authorities expect the virus to reach its peak in early April, wherein 15,000 ventilators will be needed.
Singapore has thus far not reported a shortage of ventilators for its Covid-19 patients. The country has, in fact, been able to donate two mechanical ventilators to the Philippines over the past weekend, along with 40,000 Covid-19 test kits. —/TISG
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